There are many people I admire. Historically, my heroes have been do-ers—Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Gloria Steinem and the like. My criteria for greatness disproportionately favor those who push for and achieve social change. But last week, while on retreat in Costa Rica, I heard the story of a woman whose quiet courage made me rethink greatness.
Krishna Das, the much-celebrated master of chanting, told us this story during an afternoon dharma talk. The woman lived in India and was of little means. Her guru—Neem Karoly Baba who taught western spiritual luminaries including Ram Dass—married her to one of his devotees. She spent her life quietly serving her husband, her guru and countless others in her community. When Krishna Das first met her, she was young and vibrant, with a radiant smile. Several decades later, they met again, and he was surprised to witness her physical deterioration. Her hands were permanently clenched in fists and she suffered from enormous back and joint pain. But she still managed to cook, clean, raise children, take care of the elderly and serve as a pillar of strength in the community. When Krishna Das asked after her, she replied, “Machine broken, but inside okay.”
The “machine” she referred to was her body. It was broken. But I think she would have said the same thing had she been starving to death or living in the midst of a war zone. She had reached a point in her development where even the most tortuous external circumstances couldn’t disturb the ocean of calm she had found within.
When I heard this story I cried tears of admiration. For most of us living in the west, our “machines” are in good working order, but on the inside we’re a mess. I live in a peaceful country, earn a good living, have a healthy body and have more opportunity than I could hope to exploit. And yet, my recent separation and job stress nearly broke me.
When I began practicing Buddhism—after surviving yet another round of brutal life challenges—the metaphorical penny dropped inside me. I could finally see what this woman in India had learned long ago. There will always be “broken machines” to contend with—our bodies will break down and our seemingly stable jobs and relationships could spontaneously fall apart. But when we cultivate our inner selves, we learn to tap into an inexhaustible source of calm within. And when we learn to do so in a matter of seconds or minutes, we are no longer at the mercy of our broken body, family or democracy. Nothing can touch us.
On the plane ride home, I spent hours meditating on the quiet courage of this woman. I imagined the physical pain she felt each morning as she struggled to get out of bed. And the challenge of falling asleep with a broken (and un-medicated) body set atop a thin sleeping mat on the floor. This woman may not have earned a Nobel Peace Prize, but despite her meager circumstances, she found inner peace, and that may be the greatest achievement that any of us can hope for.